We are witnessing a micromobility revolution. But what exactly is micromobility? A growing disruptive force to the automotive industry – quite possibly. A convenient, alternative means of getting around – sure. In this blog I will break down the definition of the term, and also add some context around the importance of this movement in transport.
To begin, let's look at the word itself. ‘Mobility’ is freedom, the freedom to move. ‘Micro’ is small, tiny, or minimal. Any mode of transport, then, that enables one to move freely, with autonomy and with minimal impact, can be considered ‘micromobility’.
The trouble is, within the transport sector, we require an agreed definition in order to legislate around any new innovation. The term ‘micromobility’ was born of fractious definitions, and is yet to be defined in a useful way.
In the podcast entitled “Micromobility”, Horace Dediu, a tech industry analyst who has claimed one definition, begins with the modes that aren’t a car.
“Micromobility is a word that covers everything that is ignored in the eyes of automobility. Not currently considered legitimate in the eyes of automobility, the debris, the stuff that we’ve swept aside, and frankly is discriminated against. It’s a term to give an umbrella to all of the invisibles, the types that are L or light category (lighter than a car) or ‘not a car’.”
So, micromobility is small and light. But it is also important that the mode has minimal impact; impact on others, society, and the environment. In other words, they are human-powered or are efficient in their energy usage, and include many personal light electric vehicles (PLEV). We define the term like so:
#1 More than just the last mile.
#2 Designed for short trips of up to five miles.
#4 A challenge to the automotive industry.
#5 Low-speed, lightweight, and designed for short-distance travel.
Micromobility is... more than the last mile
To me, micromobility addresses the problem of a high percentage of short trips made by car. We use our cars for running errands, taking kids to school, visiting friends, and commuting to work. The majority of these journeys are less than 5 miles, and we invariably travel at slow speeds. If these short distance journeys were made in lighter vehicles, we would dramatically reduce congestion and air pollution. There would be many advantages to society as a whole that would come therewith.
Micromobility is part of governments’ urban strategies the world over, for many cities are suffering the same problem with congestion. It has been defined in the UK’s 2019 Future of Mobility paper as;
“Micromobility: The use of small mobility devices, designed to carry one or two people, or ‘last-mile’ deliveries. E-scooters and e-bikes are examples.”
Now, I would argue that the UK’s Department for Transport have missed the point slightly. As journalist Carlton Reid points out, micromobility doesn’t have to be motorised. And it’s not just for “last-mile” trips, either.
The trend of societies’ urbanisation means most cities have reached what The Guardian describes as “peak car” (i.e. they are all congested). The roads are at full capacity, and we’re seeing pollution causing a national health crisis. Tens of thousands of people are dying each year in the UK from respiratory health problems. And at the same time, we know how inefficient it is to use a two-tonne SUV just to nip out to buy bread, yet still we’re doing it.
The term “last-mile” doesn’t refer to running errands, it’s a term to describe the ideal inner-city public transport network. The target at which authorities should aim when planning transit hubs: to provide public transport to every resident, and one mile (the aforementioned last mile) is the reasonable maximum distance that any resident should be from the nearest station.
The “last mile” is also referred to when discussing deliveries from online orders. The common mode used by the likes of Amazon is a van, running individual orders from the depot to people’s front doors. Traditionally, in the UK, the electric milk float was an everyday solution to last-mile milk deliveries – a working solution that suffered around the turn of the century, but could be making a comeback.
Therefore, micromobilty isn’t just for ‘last-mile’ solutions, it’s more than that.
Micromobility is... any light mode designed for short trips of up to five miles
Micromobility is the term which is used to describe any mode of transport suitable for – nay, designed for – short trips. Cars are not necessary in many cases for short trips. They’re hugely over-specced, heavy, and energy-consuming. Put simply, they are not suitable.
- Micromobility modes are lightweight, and therefore are less carbon intensive both to manufacture and to use.
- Micromobility modes are slow, low-powered, low-speed, or human-powered, like bicycles.
- Micromobility modes can also combine active travel with technology; they are pedal-assist bicycles or kick-assist scooters, light vehicles which serve people less able, like the elderly.
- Micromobility modes are lighter and slower than a 50cc motorbike or L1E category moped.
Micromobility modes are suffering a gross lack of definition, and therefore suffer from not being type-approved. They suffer from having no ‘space to ride’ within the eyes of the authorities, as other modes are still yet to be embraced in cycle lanes or quiet roads.
The most recent micromobility mode to be type approved for the road in the UK is the 250W Low Powered Moped, in other words an e-bike.
Shared micromobility – the dockless e-scooter fleet
The mode that stands out in public perception as an example of micromobility is the e-scooter. In 2018 the e-scooter arrived onto the world arena in the form of dockless e-scooter share companies Bird and Lime. If you haven’t noticed the furore created by the latest tech ‘unicorns’ to come out of the US, they’ll doubtless be coming to a city near you in the months to come, thanks to their heavily aggressive venture capital funded operations.
Tipped to solve cities’ congestion problems the world over, e-scooter share is certainly the most disruptive approach to micromobility. By literally putting e-scooters under people’s noses, and making them available to ride for a few dollars, they have managed to change people’s habits in how they move around the city, just by giving them a chance to try it.
However, dockless e-scooter share has had teething problems. The hardware (e-scooters) they use for public use is simply not robust enough, and not safe enough. Alison Griswold notes in her Oversharing newsletter that the average lifespan of a shared scooter in Louisville, KY from August to December 2018 was 28 days. Micromobility is supposed to be a cause championing sustainability. I don’t expect the production of a new fleet every month is much better for the environment than taking the car.
This also suggests that shared micromobility is removing the barrier for cost, and replacing that with convenience (i.e. you pay a negligible sum, and you can in turn get from A to B much more quickly). We should be talking in value of a metric lasting over a number of years, rather than focussing on cheapness and convenience.
Nonetheless, the scooter rides, charged at just a few dollars, are fast clocking up millions of miles all over the globe. Bird and Lime are designed to appeal to a very human need, which is to have fun. That's something that we at Swifty have been doing since we started in 2011, and is one of the most important things to us. So it's great that these big companies have realised this and are following suit. And the e-scooter is an alternative to cramming onto public transport or sitting in a traffic jam, so it’s obvious why it’s so appealing.
Bird and Lime have obvious motives to become the #1 short-distance mobility platform; the app on your phone; the go-to company for short distance transportation. They will soon expand their offering of e-scooters to include other modes. They have captured the users, the data, and the iPhone real-estate, and are set to make investors a healthy return. (Bird and Lime both reached a valuation of $2bn within 12 months of their inception.)
Micromobility is... multi-modal
But micromobility is more than just e-scooters. It is a multi-modal term, including human powered modes, bikes, kick-scooters, recumbent-bikes, cargo-bikes, tricycles, and quadricycles. Micromobility includes electric (PLEV) modes; e-scooters, e-bikes, pedal-assist and speed-pedelecs, Segways, and e-cargo bikes.
Micromobility is... a challenge to the automotive industry
The rise of micromobility is causing a ripple effect throughout the automotive industry. Renault CEO Thierry Bolloré told CNN Business during an interview at the 2019 Geneva Motor Show:
“The landscape is changing dramatically. The automotive landscape is in disruption.”
A growing number of large car brands are bringing out their own version of light vehicles. Interestingly, the e-scooter has taken centre stage for several brands, at concept level.
Mini released the Citysurfer back in 2016, opting for a 16-inch-wheeled e-scooter. The following year, BMW released the X2City, also a 16-inch e-scooter and weighing in at 20kg. Both brands chose a similar format/mode type, an e-scooter with 16-inch wheels.
Elsewhere, we find Mercedes’ city-car brand Smart unveiling a pedelec bike, released in the early 2010s but no longer available for sale. And Ford dabbled in micromobility with the 2015 announcements of concept e-bikes MoDe:Me and MoDe:Pro.
Mini and Peugeot both released folding bicycles in 2018. And over the past few years we’ve seen standard bicycles from brands like Saab, Jaguar, Vauxhall, Fiat, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. So don’t be fooled; motoring brands are quietly expanding beyond cars and into micromobility.
At the same time, micromobility is by its very nature complementary to other modes of transport. Often they are designed compact or foldable so that they can easily be taken on public transport or fit in a car.
Read more in the journal: Park & Ride re-designed | Why EVs and scooters are defining the future of urban mobility
The adoption of micromobility modes still has barriers to overcome
Horace Dediu remarks that the non-automotive landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented through complex laws and standards, while cars are allowed to prevail. He said:
“The more you divide it up, the more it’s conquered, divide and conquer. Every single sub-category is given restrictions rather than embracing the future. Ever since the automobile, that’s been the rule. The car has its own restrictions, but the car has been dominant.
“We need a reversal. What needs to happen is that normality needs to be micro, 80% of the space should be micro.”
Most pressingly, authorities are beginning to curb car usage in order to reduce carbon emissions. In their March 2019 air quality improvement report, Public Health England propose the following:
“Interventions in urban areas may target emissions from road vehicles (e.g. by promotion of public transport, cycling, use of electric vehicles) or emissions from wood-burners (e.g. by using cleaner fuels, or replacing old appliances).”
So the legislative adoption of alternative transportation is already being considered to some degree. But naturally it will be difficult to convince existing car owners to switch their mode of transport. The report continues:
“Interventions that tackle immediate emissions from the existing vehicle fleet include driving restrictions (which have sometimes been used during episodes of high air pollution), abatement retrofit (though cost is a potential barrier, particularly for private vehicles), and anti-idling enforcement.”
As noted by the inspirational Greta Thunberg, we are in the midst of a climate crisis. We must undergo some drastic behavioural changes if we’re to begin reversing the decades of damage wreaked by pollution.
Read more in the journal: Micromobility: How scooters and bikes can boost your business
Micromobility is... low-speed, lightweight, and designed for short-distance travel
To us at Swifty, micromobility is about reducing emissions and freeing our cities. Micromobility is mode of travel characterised by being low in speed and light in weight. It is a mode that is designed for short distance travel.
The transport revolution that is micromobility will surely reshape our cities. New innovations will begin to be subject to new safety testing standards, and we will see many innovations die out and others flourish.
At the moment in the UK, many forms of micromobility are lumped together into the powered transporters category, which includes hoverboards and powered unicycles, which are all currently banned in the UK. However, e-scooters which can be equipped with all relevant safety features are set to be singled out and hopefully legalised sooner rather than later.
When considering safety legislation and standards, it's actually not very useful to separate active travel from e-mobility modes. As we define it, micromobility modes are low-power and low-speed, whether human-powered or motorised. The key is the safety of the hardware, and responsible manufacturing.
Jason Iftakhar, co-founder of Swifty Scooters, said:
“Safety is something no product should ever compromise on, and is foremost in what we do at Swifty. That’s why we build our scooters to last, and why we have given them features like bigger wheels and proper brakes.”
The micromobility revolution and the adoption of light modes will inform new road design. Cities need to make more space for lighter and slower modes to be able to share space with bikes. Micromobility lanes are certainly in my mind for the future of our cities.
Read more in the journal: Swifty's Micro Mobility Solution - A Scooter Fleet for Your Business
We at Swifty have a micromobility plan of our own, and we're crowdfunding. If you want to find out more, please follow this link to sign up to our pre-registration page.